Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Just wanted to leave a special note to all of my readers out there, both the old troupers who've been with me from the beginning, and those of you who stumbled over my little corner of the Internet in the past year:

It makes me happy to know that there are so many of you out there that are interested in the same sorts of music that I like. I commend you all on your exquisite musical taste! But seriously - thanks to all of you for taking the time over the past 366 days to check out and comment on my little screeds; knowing that there are folks out there who actually read my stuff is very gratifying, and very humbling. I look forward to hearing from you all in 2013, as Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole begins another year posting new stories and new tunes I hope you like.

I'll leave you all with the video to one of my favorite songs of the past year, Japandroids' "The House That Heaven Built" - enjoy, and see ya next year!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Joe Strummer - Earthquake Westher


The Clash posts this week were all lead-ups to today, the tenth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer.

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news: I was in Rhode Island, driving into work two days before Christmas and listening to National Public Radio. The announcement of his death was one of the top news stories; it was brief, and provided no details other than the basic journalistic "five Ws". But it was still a huge jolt to me. The Clash were about to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in just a few weeks, and I was eagerly looking forward to a reunion. While still on the road, I instantly called one of my buddies and fellow band mates, a big Clash fan like myself. He hadn't heard the news; when I broke it to him, he was just as shocked as I was.

I spent all day a work in a funk, listening to Clash tunes on my Creative MP3 player. Later that day as I drove home, I listened to the NPR afternoon show, which had a more in-depth report on Joe. It was a very well-done overview/tribute to Strummer's life, and at the end of it, they did something extraordinary - they played "White Man In Hammersmith Palais" in its entirety.




I remember being amazed and grateful that a news organization such as NPR devoted so much time and showed so much respect to Strummer's life and music - they didn't just treat him like some dirty punk rocker, but as a serious artist and visionary.

After the collapse of the final version of The Clash following the disastrous and widely-panned release of 1985's Cut The Crap, Strummer spent the next few years working on musical collaborations with other partners - I think that the reception of the last Clash album rattled him a bit, and he began working on projects to get back his confidence in his music-making abilities and skills. He first teamed with filmmaker Alex Cox and contributed two songs to the soundtrack of his 1986 film Sid & Nancy. Strummer then ended his feud with former Clash band mate Mick Jones, and collaborated with him on Big Audio Dynamite's second album, No. 10 Upping St., producing the album and co-writing most of the songs. He then went back to work with Cox, contributing another two songs to the film Straight To Hell. Cox was so pleased with Strummer's input that he asked him to score his next movie in its entirety. The film, Walker (released in 1987), was widely panned and flopped at the box office (Cox never worked for a major Hollywood studio again). But the film's soundtrack received much critical praise, with Strummer's mix of reggae, rock, calypso and South American music receiving high marks.

The positive reception of the Walker soundtrack gave Strummer back his 'mojo', and in 1988 he began working on his own material again, this time with no collaborator. He put together a backing band in Los Angeles (which included former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons) and spent a year with them in the local studios, working on his new project and also cutting songs to contribute to another movie, Keanu Reeves' Permanent Record. The album Strummer and his band (now known as The Latino Rockabilly War) released, 1989's Earthquake Weather, was a return to form for him. I purchased the album the instant it came out, and played songs like "Shouting Street" and "Dizzy's Goatee" to death. It's not his finest work, in my opinion. But it was good to see Joe Strummer back out there, doing what he did best, and most critics seemed to agree with that sentiment. The album was well-reviewed, but sold relatively poorly.

Frankly, I don't think Strummer cared one way or another. Earthquake Weather is Joe dipping his toe back in the musical water, to check the temperature and to see if it was worth it for him to jump back in again. Apparently, he found that it was. Strummer gradually made his way back into actively performing, eventually putting together The Mescaleros and releasing three superb albums with them before his death.

So, in honor of and in tribute to the great Joe Strummer, here's Earthquake Weather, released by Epic Records on September 20th, 1989. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

 Rest well, Joe.  

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Clash - Nakano Sun Plaza, Tokyo, Japan (1982-01-28) (Discs 1 & 2)


More Clash bootlegs . . .

Here's the two-disc version of The Clash burning down the Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo as part of their Far East tour in early 1982, playing some pre-release versions of songs that would eventually appear on Combat Rock three months later. In terms of quality, this set is hit and miss . . . But even in its muddied glory, you can still hear the power and musicianship of the band shining through. You can even sense some remaining rapport between the band members here - probably the last of it, as the band was touring in the midst of the contentious recording of that album. Mick Jones was unhappy with the rest of the band rejecting his Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg mix, and Glyn Johns was about to be brought in at the end of the tour to remix the album in London. Jones was especially pissed at Joe Strummer; their acrimony would lead to Jones leaving the group less than eighteen months later . . .

(but I've already covered the story behind Combat Rock, haven't I?)

Anyway, what I'm saying is, despite the iffy quality in places, it's still an essential listen for Clash fans with a hankering to know what the band sounded like live. So, here you are. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Whoa - lookie here at what I found; some enterprising young raascal has taken the liberty of uploading a major portion of the Nakano Sun concert onto YouTube. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Clash - D.O.A. (Demos, Outtakes, Alternates) (Discs 1 & 2)



Starting with this post, I'm kicking off what I'm calling "Clash Week '12" - nothing but Clash-related albums for the next few days.

And here's the first offering: the ultra-rare two-disc bootleg of Clash rarities, D.O.A. (Demos, Outtakes, Alternate Mixes). I have ZERO information on who put this excellent collection together, or even when it was first released - but no matter. This thing is the balls. I was going to write one of my usual long-winded reviews of this outstanding compilation, but instead I'll direct you to the blog of someone who's already written one a lot better than I ever could have come up with, Sharoma.net. His opening line says it all regarding this set: "Perhaps the ultimate collection of Clash rarities" (the link also provides a breakdown of all fifty-four tracks by source).

These discs are well-nigh impossible to find out there now - it took me over two years of diligent effort to track this thing down myself. But I'm a generous man, and thus I share my good fortune with you; if you love the Clash as much as I do, get ready for a real treat! To quote Sharoma's review, "All Clash fans MUST have this!" Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Various Artists - The Time-Life Treasury Of Christmas: Holiday Memories

Well, I thought it over . . . and figured, heck, it's no use in offering half of something. Here's The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas: Holiday Memories, the companion to my previous post, The Time Life Treasury Of Christmas (Christmas Spirit and Christmas Memories).

Just like its sister, this two-disc set is chockablock with nothing but holiday classics by the original artists! Just check out this great tracklist:
Disc 1:

1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing - Nat King Cole
2. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! - Dean Martin
3. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Bing Crosby
4. The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You) - Nat King Cole
5. Little Saint Nick - The Beach Boys
6. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) - The Chipmunks
7. Merry Christmas Baby - Charles Brown
8. White Christmas - Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters
9. Santa Baby - Eartha Kitt with Henri Rene & His Orchestra
10. It's Not The Presents Under The Tree (It's Your Presence Right Here Next To Me) - Eva Cassidy
11. I Believe In Father Christmas - Greg Luke
12. Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy - David Bowie & Bing Crosby

Disc 2:

1. A Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
2. Frosty The Snowman - Gene Autry
3. Christmas Is A Feeling In Your Heart - Andy Williams
4. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas - Perry Como & The Fontane Sisters
5. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - Judy Garland
6. This Time Of The Year - Brook Benton
7. Christmas Auld Land Syne - Bobby Darin
8. Feliz Navidad - Joes Feliciano
9. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
10. Silver Bells - Earl Grant
11. I'll Be Home For Christmas - Bing Crosby
12. Silent Night - Dinah Washington
There's nothing else to say here about this album, other than enjoy, happy holidays, and as always, let me know what you think!

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Since "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" is part of this collection, I might as well include this superb video with this post - one of the all-time great holiday collaborations, Bing Crosby & David Bowie on Bing's annual (and final) Christmas TV special, November 30th, 1977 (the show was taped that September; Bing died less than a month later in Spain). People forget nowadays, but back in the mid-70s Bowie was considered to be an out-and-out freak by most of Middle America . . . so it was somewhat of a shock and an enlightenment for a lot of people seeing the friendly, polite, 'normal' family man Bowie warbling Christmas carols with Mr. Wholesomeness himself. This is a stone classic:



And on a lighter note - here's Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's spot-on parody of this TV moment:



Saturday, December 8, 2012

Various Artists - The Time-Life Treasury Of Christmas (Christmas Spirit and Christmas Memories)

Here it is - the Christmas collection by which all others should be measured: the classic and legendary Time-Life Treasury Of Christmas. I used to LOVE the TV commercial for this album; it would run on local channels starting around mid-October. To me, nothing said "Christmas is coming!" and got me pumped about the upcoming holidays more than seeing this ad:



Time-Life's big selling point for this album was that (at the time) it was the only compilation available which included Bing Crosby's immortal "White Christmas". But there are tons of other 'must have' holiday songs here as well - Gene Autry's "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Home For The Holidays" by Perry Como, Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree", "The Little Drummer Boy" by the Harry Simeone Chorale - this thing is chock-full of the original classics!

I initially acquired this set on cassette in 1986, the year it was first released. Over the years, Time-Life has rereleased this album several times, in various formats, all with varying track lists as well. The original release had forty-five songs, spread over two CDs/cassettes. But in 2001, in an apparent effort to milk more money out of purchasers, the company modified the collection, splitting the compilation into two separate double-disc albums of 24 songs apiece (The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas and The Time-Life Treasury Of Christmas: Holiday Memories), removing some artist's tracks and adding new ones. While some of these changes were questionable and annoying (I, for one, liked Dolly Parton's "Winter Wonderland/Sleigh Ride" medley and the Beach Boys' "Santa's Beard" and miss seeing them on the record), overall the mods didn't impact the overarching quality of the discs. Still, it would have been nice if they kept all 40-something songs together on one release, instead of splitting them up.

Here's the lineup:
Disc 1: Christmas Spirit:

1. Home For The Holidays - Perry Como
2. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
3. Jingle Bells - Ella Fitzgerald
4. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Andy Williams
5. Carol Of The Bells/Deck The Halls - The Robert Shaw Chorale
6. I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day - Harry Belafonte
7. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
8. My Favorite Things - Eddie Fisher
9. Joy To The World - Julie Andrews
10. Here We Come A-Caroling - The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
11. March Of The Toys - The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
12. O Holy Night - Luciano Pavarotti

Disc 2: Christmas Memories:

1. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer - Gene Autry
2. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year - Andy Williams
3. The Twelve Days Of Christmas - Roger Whittaker
4. Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy - The Boston Pops Orchestra
5. Mary's Boy Child - Harry Belafonte
6. I'll Be Home For Christmas - Elvis Presley
7. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree - Brenda Lee
8. Sleigh Ride - Johnny Mathis
9. Tennessee Christmas - Alabama
10. Baby's First Christmas - Connie Francis
11. The Little Drummer Boy - Harry Simeone Chorale
12. Auld Lang Syne - Guy Lombardo
I may post Holiday Memories here later (or maybe not - I have to save something to post for next Xmas!). But for now, enjoy this one! I guarantee that THIS is the holiday album you will be playing the most during your Christmas season!

So, for your listening pleasure, here's The Time-Life Treasury Of Christmas double-disc set, first released in 1986 and updated in 2001 by Time–Life Music in cooperation with BMG Music. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Further Out

I don't usually write timely posts related to recent news items . . . but in this worthy case, I'll make an exception. Dave Brubeck, who died earlier this morning, was a GIANT, not just in the world of jazz, but in popular music as a whole, and as such he deserves heartfelt acknowledgement and profound tribute.

Brubeck was already a highly experienced and hugely successful musician when he formed his legendary quartet in 1951.  The group established its headquarters at San Francisco's former Blackhawk club, but during the Fifties made an effort to expand their audience through concerts of college campuses nationwide and during the decade releasing a series of popular recordings based on these tours: Jazz At Oberlin, Jazz Goes To College, Jazz Goes To Junior College, etc. He formed what is now considered the "classic" quartet lineup in 1958, with Joe Morello on drums, Eugene Wright on bass, the great Paul Desmond on alto sax, and himself on piano.

The following year, the group released Time Out, a jazz album featuring songs with unusual/rarely used time signatures, like 5/4 and 9/8. Brubeck's record company wasn't thrilled about putting the album out, and the release got creamed by critics at the time, but nevertheless Time Out became one of the most popular and best-selling jazz albums of all time, peaking at #2 on the US pop album charts (unheard of for a jazz disc), with the great 5/4 tune "Take Five" off of it becoming a chart hit and popular standard.

I'd heard "Take Five" a few times before in my life, but it wasn't until 2000 that the song really took hold of me. I was out in Los Angeles for a few days late the spring, attending my younger sister's graduation from USC's grad school, along with meeting up with old friends and running around the city. By that point, I'd been to L.A. enough to know the places I liked (like Pink's Hot Dog stand, Lola's Martini Bar in West Hollywood and the Formosa Cafe) and the places to avoid (basically, most of the touristy stuff like the Chinese Theater or the Hollywood sign), so I spent a lot of time at the places I preferred, just grooving to what the city had to offer.

Early one morning, after a long night of fun in out in Santa Monica, I found myself seated over a pastrami & rye in a booth at Mel's Drive-In on Sunset Boulevard. In the heart of that built-up and relentlessly modernized area of L.A., Mel's felt like an anachronism, a throwback to the American Graffiti, "Happy Days" era - it had that sort of vibe working, with its old-timey look, red pleather seats and general atmosphere. Each booth had a small coin-operated jukebox attached to it, containing songs from that bygone age - stuff like "Mr. Sandman", "Splish Splash" . . . and "Take Five", a song I hadn't heard at that point in years. I dropped my nickel, punched in the Brubeck song, and it was like BAM! The power, the smoothness, the overall coolness of that tune just hit me right between the eyes, right then and there. I sat there and played that song three more times before I settled my check, and with each play, "Take Five" took hold of me more and more. I walked out of Mel's that morning a Brubeck fanatic; later that day, I went down the street to the old Tower Records and bought Time Out.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Time Out, it was a long time before I discovered that the Dave Brubeck Quartet had released a followup/sequel to this classic. Time Further Out was released in 1961, and repeated the pattern of the previous success, showcasing tunes with strange beats (for me, a lot of the fun in these albums is trying to wrap my head around the time signatures when listening to the songs, trying to determine exactly what the beat is for each tune). While at first glance it may seem that the group was resting on it laurels and repeating its popular success, that is definitely not the case. Time Further Out is the equal, if not superior, to Time Out.

Why? Well, as good as the latter was, in a lot of ways Time Out feels sort of like a music experiment, with the quartet trying out the different signatures and arrangements in almost a detached, clinical fashion, just to see if they can do it - a scientific musical exercise, if you will. But to me, on Time Further Out, the music seems to have more heart and feel behind it. It's as if during the two years after the release of Time Out, the band got more and more comfortable with working with different timings; they didn't have to THINK about it as much, what went into a 9/8 or a 7/4, and as such they could concentrate more on the playing, the infusion of character and soul into their music, rather than in making sure they all stayed in time. Listen to songs like "Maori Blues" or "Unsquare Dance", and you can HEAR the fun the band is having in playing these songs together (listen to them laugh together at the end of the latter song!). Time Out is brilliant on a technical level; Time Further Out is brilliant on a musical level - and as such, the two albums complement and complete one another. Both are essential jazz recordings.

The classic Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up in 1967, but Brubeck continued to record and play live shows, both solo and with other groups, up until his death today, the day before his 92nd birthday. In the years before his death, he has been justly and widely recognized as one of the towering figures in jazz and popular music, and the music and legacy he leaves behind will keep his name alive far into the future. Thanks for everything, Mr. Brubeck, and all the best to you in your current journey.

Here's the Dave Brubeck Quartet's classic jazz album Time Further Out, released by Columbia Records on May 3rd, 1961. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Beatles - From Then To You (Purple Chick)

More Christmas-related rarities for you . . .

Between 1963 and 1969, The Beatles sent out annual Christmas songs and messages on flexi-disc (produced by Lyntone, a London firm which wasn't really a label as such, but more of a record pressing plant for hire, specializing in small-run stuff) to members of their official fan clubs in the UK and US. The idea for these Christmas records came from Tony Barrow, the Beatles' press officer. As the volume of fan mail grew exponentially in the wake of the band's meteoric rise, the group fell further and further behind in answering the torrent of cards, letters, and club membership applications. Barrow suggested, as a way to assuage increasingly pissed-off fans, that the Beatles should look to Queen Elizabeth, who sent out annual yuletide greetings to her subjects via TV and radio. In his words, they should "follow her fine example, but in their own way." It was intended to be a one-off method of damage control with fans in 1963, but it became an annual Beatle tradition, a nice bonus for joining their club and a unique way to acknowledge all of their fans.

The early Beatles Christmas records (1963, pictured above, and 1964) were casual affairs, seemingly thrown together at the last moment by a group with a lot of other things pending on their schedules. But that isn't to say there wasn't any preparation involved. Barrow wrote the script for these two records, which the band followed more or less. What's great about these early ones is that, in them, fans got an extended glimpse at the 'offstage' Beatles - goofing off, acting silly, laughing and joking, having fun and being totally comfortable and casual with one another. It wouldn't last.

Things began to get a lot more involved beginning with the 1965 Christmas record. The Beatles started to take a more active part in the writing of the record, which featured more extensive skits and song parodies. This trend continued through the next two releases, including the 1966 Pantomime - Everywhere It's Christmas disc. The 1967 flexi-disc was the most elaborate yet, with the group members playing several different characters in sketches revolving around fictional bands auditioning for a BBC radio show.

The '67 disc was titled Christmas Time Is Here Again!, and featured an original song of the same name played throughout the record. This song was the only segment of any Beatles Christmas record to receive official release (it was eventually put out in 1995 as the B-side on the "Free As A Bird" 7" single).

In the 1968 release, you can start to sense a band on the verge of falling apart. The 'group' dynamic was all but long gone - members recorded most of their segments separately. John's contribution that year included a particularly biting 'fable' called "The Ballad of Jock & Yono", obliquely calling out people (including band members) critical of his relationship with Yoko Ono:

"Once upon a time, there were two balloons called Jock and Yono. They were strictly in love, bound to happen in a million years. They were together man. Unfortunate timetable, they seemed to have previous experience which kept calling them one way or another (you know how it is). But they battled on against overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends. Being in love, they clung together even more man. But some of the poisonous-monsters-of-outdated-busloadedshitthrowers [said very garbled and quickly, but you get the general idea] did stick slightly, and they occasionally had to resort to the dry cleaners. Luckily, this did not kill them and they weren’t banned from the Olympic Games. They lived hopefully ever after and who could blame them?"
By 1969, it was over. The band had effectively split by the time this Christmas record was recorded, so everyone's segment was recorded separately. There's a LOT of John and Yoko on this one, with scant contributions by George and Ringo. Actually, if you think about it, the progression of the seven Beatle Christmas records from 1963 to 1969 closely follows the history of the band - from the happy, carefree early days of the group, to the increased experimentation of their middle years, to their final estrangement and breakup.

In 1970, in the aftermath of the band's dissolution, the UK fan club collected all seven of the Christmas records and released them on vinyl (for members only) that December on a disc entitled From Then To You. The record was repackaged in the US as The Beatles Christmas Album and released by the American fan club to its members in the spring of 1971. For most US fans, this was the first time any of them had heard the 1965, 1966 or 1967 records - American fans got ripped off in those years. Instead of receiving the flexi-disc, all they received in those years was a crappy postcard with a holiday message from the band.

Outside of these fan club releases and the one song mentioned above, the Beatles Christmas records have never received official general release. There were attempts to produce bootleg releases in the early 1980s, but lawyers representing the band beat those efforts back. After that, nothing widely available containing all of these records existed . . . until the Purple Chick bootlegs appeared in the last decade.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I acquired this in 2008 during my frantic gathering of Purple Chick Beatles-related releases in the wake of Rolling Stone's thoughtless magazine article. Purple Chick's version contained all seven records, along with outtakes, sketch snippets and portions of their early holiday radio shows. Here's the lineup for you:
1. The Beatles Christmas Record 1963
2. Another Beatles' Christmas Record 1964
3. The Beatles Third Christmas Record 1965
4. Pantomime Everywhere It's Christmas 1966
5. Christmas Time Is Here Again 1967
6. Happy Christmas 1968
7. Happy Christmas 1969
8. Hello Dolly
9. Speech - Take 1
10. Speech - Take 2
11. Speech - Take 3
12. Speech - Take 4
13. Speech - Take 5
14. The Lost Christmas Message
15. The Lost Christmas Message II
16. Messages For Radios London And Caroline
17. Jock And Yono
18. Once Upon A Pool Table
19. Christmas Time (Is Here Again)
20. ITN News Interview
21. A Saturday Club Christmas
22. Newsreel Interview
23. Christmas Show Interview

(Tracks 9-15 are outtakes from the 1964 Christmas session)
If you've never heard these before, you're in for a treat. Get ready for another side and dimension of the Beatles you may have never been aware of. For the most part, these are excellent and essential parts of the Beatles oeuvre, and as such I can't for the life of me figure out why they haven't been put out on an official album yet. EVERYONE needs to hear this great stuff.

But, you all are first! So, for your holiday listening pleasure, The Beatles' From Then To You, released by Purple Chick sometime in 2007 (I only have it in .m4a - sorry). Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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* * * * * * *

My friend, the writer and frequent NPR guest Colin Fleming, has done a few things over the recent holidays related to this post - here they are for your edification and enjoyment. Great job and good stuff as always, Colin!

NPR - When The Beatles Gave Fans A 'Crimble' Present (21 Dec 2014)
The Tom Dunne Show - The Beatles Christmas With Colin Fleming
Vanity Fair - A Guide to the Strange, Little-Known, Hard-to-Find Beatles Christmas Recordings (17 Dec 2014)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cocteau Twins - Snow EP

I've got a few posts pending that I have to finish (so check back in the next few days, as I'll probably be backdating them on this site) . . . But I thought I'd kick off my annual series of Christmas-related posts with this: the Cocteau Twins' uber-rare, hard-to-find Snow EP.

The early 1990s were sort of a rough period for the Cocteau Twins.
The band was just coming off of its enormously successful 1990-91 worldwide tour for their critically-acclaimed album Heaven Or Las Vegas - this was their first tour as a headliner and their first live performances since 1986, so EVERY show was a sold out affair. Singer Liz Fraser and her longtime mate, band co-founder and principal songwriter Robin Guthrie had recently become parents to a little girl. The third member of the band, Simon Raymonde, had also recently married and had become a father. So it seemed that, after years of struggle and toil, the group was finally reveling in the financial and spiritual benefits of their efforts.

But behind the scenes, all was not well in their world. The Cocteau Twins had long been in conflict with their label, 4AD Records, and label head Ivo Watts-Russell, over both financial and artistic differences. And apparently Watts-Russell had finally had enough; nearing the end of their tour, the group was informed that 4AD had released them from their long-standing contract. So at the beginning of 1991, the band was without a representative in the UK (Capitol Records was their U.S. distributor).

But more significantly, Guthrie's life took a turn for the worse. He had been a long-standing alcohol and drug abuser during the '80s, but his addiction became even more pronounced and debilitating during the Heaven Or Las Vegas tour. His problems with booze and dope not only threatened the stability of the band, they caused severe stresses in his family life, resulting in an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Fraser. The Cocteau Twins were very close to falling apart, personally and professionally, right at the point where they had achieved their greatest comfort and success.

To his credit, upon his return to England Guthrie made a concerted effort to get clean and get his life back on track. But it took damn near three years for him to do so - the band's follow-up to Heaven Or Las Vegas, Four-Calendar Cafe, wouldn't be released until late 1993. During that entire three-year period, the Cocteau Twins made no recordings whatsoever . . . with one exception: the Snow EP.

Simon Raymonde talked about the making of the EP a few years later for a music magazine:
"There's a Christmas record that comes out on Capitol Records (the Cocteaus' US label) every few years. And they were trying to get all their bands to do a cover version of a Christmas song. I didn't think that's what it was at the time. I thought it would be like sitting next to Frank Sinatra. But in fact it would've been, y'know, Skinny Puppy, doing 'Merry Xmas Everybody.' Anyway they'd said, Would you do one? And Liz suggested — it must have been for a joke — 'Frosty The Snowman.' Then Robin went, Yeah, good title, people will think it's a normal Cocteau Twins song with a title like that."

"Once we'd got the music down, I wrote down the lyrics on a piece of paper and said to Liz, Hey, look at these, and we were laughing away. As we were going through it I was listening to Liz's reactions and thinking, this is never gonna get done. She was going, 'He's a very happy soul' — me sing that?! No way, I could not in a million years... 'with a broomstick in his ' — you've gotta be fucking kidding!'"

"I just didn't think she'd do it."
But she DID do it - the Cocteau Twins recorded "Frosty The Snowman" in the fall of 1992. The planned Capitol Christmas album never got off the ground, so the band let the song be included in the December 1992 Volume CD Magazine (issue #5).  The response to their version of "Frosty The Snowman" was so positive, that their new label (after 4AD, they signed with Fontana Records) suggested they back it with another Christmas song ("Winter Wonderland") and release it as a holiday single. The resulting Snow EP had an extremely limited release (one day only) in December 1993 in the UK.

I started looking for this release in the late Nineties, and it took me forever to find a copy of this EP. After several aborted attempts, I finally got my hands on a copy just before I left Texas at the end of the decade; I forget what I paid for it, but it was enough. However, it's nowhere near what sellers are demanding for this CD nowadays - I checked a couple of online retailers, who have copies of this EP for sale for $100 or more. Now THAT'S a rarity!
In addition to owning the CD, I also own a 45-RPM version of this EP, pressed on colored vinyl:


I suspect that this vinyl version is even more rare and valuable than the CD - but I don't care. I'm not about to part with EITHER of them . . .
. . . except, of course, to let you all, my devoted readers, have a chance to hear this music! So, for your holiday listening pleasure, here's the Cocteau Twins Snow EP, released in December 1993 on Fontana Records, and distributed in the U.S. by Capitol Records. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mark E. Smith - Pander! Panda! Panzer!


I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I think Mark E. Smith is an out-and-out musical genius, and it has been his innate intelligence and iron leadership that have, by force of will alone, kept his band The Fall alive and relevant for over 35 years and counting. A working-class bloke who is unusually well-read, his lyrics are sprinkled with literary references to William Blake, Christopher Marlowe and H.P. Lovecraft (among many others), and refer to historical events including the Protestant Reformation and the death of Pope John Paul I. And mixed in with these literary allusions are heaping dollops of his wicked and bitter, yet funny and thought-provoking sense of humor. Here are but a few of my favorite Fall lyrics:
- "The Wehrmacht never got in here . . . but it took us six years" (from "Middle Mass")
- "You're a walking tower of Adidas crap at a cobblers four times a month" (from "Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun")
- "I was very let down with the budget/I was expecting a one million quid handout/I was very disappointed/It was the government's fault" (from "Dog Is Life/Jerusalem")
He's no musician, and he doesn't possess what would remotely be described as a golden set of pipes. But for most of his career, Smith has wisely surrounded himself with a superb and ever-rotating group of instrumentalists, musos who are not only very good at what they do, but who also are able to translate Smith's sometimes dense and abstract vision and words into music that sounds like nothing else currently out there. That's another attribute of The Fall that doesn't get discussed enough - for nearly four decades, Smith has been able to constantly change his band's musical style, without following the current trend du jour (be it punk, New Wave, alternative, Madchester, grunge, etc.) and without pandering to his audience. And yet in every iteration, with every new Fall lineup, each album and every song produced over the years is immediately recognizable as being by "The Fall". There's a lot of truth in what DJ John Peel once said: "The Fall are always different, always the same."

But Smith's literate and sometimes off-kilter wordplay can be VERY strong medicine, not only for those uninitiated into the whys, hows and wherefores of The Fall, but indeed for longtime fans as well. And like any powerful medicine, it goes down best either in small doses, or with something to ease its administration - such as the excellent music backing up those dense lyrics, provided by his Fall bandmates or by one of many groups Smith has fronted as either a member (Von Sudenfed) or as a guest (Mouse On Mars, Inspiral Carpets, D.O.S.E., etc.) over the years. Unadulterated Mark E. Smith is hard to take . . .

. . . Which is why I have problems with this album, his second spoken-word solo release (the first being 1998's The Post Nearly 
Man).  Similar to his earlier solo work, the disc consists of Smith reciting his poetry/stories in his inimitable voice, with absolutely no musical accompaniment - it's just pure Smith, through and through. Sometimes he sounds like he's reading at the bottom of a mineshaft, other times within a boiler tank, but in the end it's just him and his words. Unlike The Post Nearly Man, however, Smith disposes of breaking his readings down into manageable parts - Pander! Panda! Panzer! has no track listing; it's just one long, uninterrupted 42-minute long track. There aren't a ton of new ideas on this disc; a lot of stuff on it is essentially a rehash of the first spoken word album - "Enigrammatic Dream", for example, is reprised here. And Smith even goes so far as to plagiarize from The Fall; at one point here, he simply reads the lyrics from "Idiot Joy Showland" off of 1991's Shift-Work (not one of the band's most deathless works). Sad to see this from him . . .

Here's the bottom line: I'm a HUGE Fall fan, and I really, really, REALLY wanted to like this album. But in the end, Pander! Panda! Panzer! comes off as forty-plus minutes of non-stop ravings from a deranged old man. It makes me sad to say that, since it's been my experience that Mark E. Smith has rarely made a misstep in his career. But in my opinion, this is one of them. If you're going to issue what essentially is an artistic conceit, at the very least make it somewhat accessible to the audience you're trying to reach. I know that that's not Smith's style, but still . . .

As such, I can't recommend this disc . . . even the most rabid Fall fan will be hard-pressed to get through it all. There are some nuggets of gold encased in his long stream of words (hence the saying, 'Amidst madness, wisdom lies therein') - good luck holding out long enough to hear them.

However, if you're looking to test your endurance, here you are: For your consideration, Mark E. Smith's Pander! Panda! Panzer!, released on Action Records in 2002. Enjoy (if you can), and as always, let me know what you think.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Poll Results: "Rolling Stone recently updated its '500 Greatest Albums of All Time' list . . . but none of the following albums appeared on either the 2003 or 2012 list. Which in your opinion are the most glaring omissions?


I'm a little late in posting these poll results - pardon. There's a lot here to go over.

When Rolling Stone first compiled "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" in 2003, a lot of critics rightly pointed out that it seemed that the list was heavily weighted towards 'classic' rock releases from the '60s and '70s.  Nine years later, they decided to give the list another go, I assume to correct the earlier mistakes in judgement and bring a new, fresher, hipper take to the compilation by bringing more modern sounds into the mix.  All in all, I can't say that their attempt was completely successful - their latest album list looks remarkably similar to the earlier one, with what are for the most part only minor changes and deletions.

Rolling Stone cheated a little in updating their list - they had to make room for new artists and albums, but at the same time it was as though they couldn't bear the thought of reducing the level of recognition previously afforded to those older artists/groups.  So in many cases, what the magazine did was to reduce the total number of albums a classic artist had on the list and consolidate their music onto a representative compilation album, which they would then rank just as highly as the artist's previous albums on the '03 list.

For example, in 2003, both volumes of Robert Johnson's King Of The Delta Blues Singers were included, at #27 and #424, respectively. But for the 2012 survey, the magazine replaced both albums with The Complete Recordings, a single release containing all of Johnson's music. For Robert Johnson, this move makes sense - he never did any albums, so The Complete Recordings is the definitive compilation from a music pioneer. But they made similar moves that made less sense - like deleting Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River and Cosmo's Factory discs, replacing them in 2012 with the Chronicles, Vol. 1 compilation - but still retaining the band's album Willy And The Poor Boys on the new list. The magazine did a similar sort of thing with Otis Redding, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds and James Brown, reducing their multiple entries on the 2003 list to one or two representative (and highly ranked) albums/compilations on the 2012 list - a backhanded, BS way for Rolling Stone to have its cake and eat it too.

Anyway, let's get to the REAL changes in the polls . . .

Losers:

The two bands that apparently suffered the biggest loss of reputation between the 2003 and 2012 lists were No Doubt and, most especially, Nick Drake - and deservedly so, in my opinion.

Nick Drake died in 1974 and for nearly 25 years was virtually unknown; posthumous awareness of his music really didn't begin to rise until the famous Volkswagen Cabrio TV commercial in 1999, featuring his song "Pink Moon".


His mainstream popularity peaked in the early 2000s - just about the same time that Rolling Stone began its initial album survey. So, without a doubt, that wave of Nick Drake adulation/nostalgia found its way into the 2003 list, which featured all three of his studio albums (Bryter Layter at #245, Five Leaves Left at #283, and Pink Moon at #320). By 2012, only Pink Moon remains. Personally, while I am impressed with Drake's guitar technique and lyrics, after a while, all of his stuff starts to sound a little bit samey. Frankly, a little bit of Nick Drake goes a long way . . . I'd always felt that his newfound glorification was just a wee bit overblown, so I can fully support Rolling Stone cutting back on recognizing his music.

As for No Doubt - well, I never understood the attraction for this group in the first place. In my mind, this band was an inferior doppleganger of the more superior West Coast "Third Wave Ska" bands in whose wake No Doubt developed - bands like Fishbone and The Untouchables. I remember when Tragic Kingdom came out - I was living in Cambridge, MA during the summer of '96, and the local alternative station played songs like "Just A Girl", "Spiderwebs" and "Don't Speak" to death. Every time I heard one of those 'blah' songs, that was my cue to change the channel. I felt that the band brought nothing new or particularly exciting to the table, and their links to ska were tenuous, if at all. At their top-dollar best, No Doubt was a 'OK' pop band with an attractive lead singer - not exactly a groundbreaking formula, and especially not one deserving of multiple "best album" recognition. The 2003 list had both Rock Steady (#316) and Tragic Kingdom (#441) - both are gone from the latest list. Good riddance.

Other artists taking a drubbing between the 2003 and 2012 lists include Roxy Music (Avalon and Country Life deleted, Siren and For Your Pleasure dropped three spots each, to #374 and #397 respectively), Alanis Morrisette (Jagged Little Pill removed - thank God), and Hank Williams, Jr. - apparently the 2012 committee didn't take to kindly to Junior's recent politically-charged comments; his compilation, formerly at #225, is completely out.

Winners:

If anything, the 2012 poll is Radiohead's critical coming-out party. Five Radiohead albums now grace this chart, with Amnesiac and In Rainbows joining the three band albums that made the 2003 list (The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A). Kid A made the most remarkable improvement in its critical reception between the polls, rising more than 350 spots, from #428 in '03 to #67 in '12. The other big gainer in the new poll is Kanye West. Three of his albums (Late Registration at #118, The College Dropout at #298, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at #353) are all new entries.

It seems that for the new poll, Rolling Stone made a rather obvious attempt to show itself to be eclectic in its selections, and tried to move away from honoring the usual hoary rock chestnuts considered "classic" by its aging editors and critics. In some cases, this works - for instance, it's good to see The Arcade Fire's Funeral (at #151), Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out (at #272) and The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (at #454) on the list; recognition of these great works are, in some cases, long overdue.

But in other instances, the magazine goes too far in its attempt to be hip and modern. In my opinion, it's a big stretch to believe that albums by Vampire Weekend, The Arctic Monkeys, LCD Soundsystem and M.I.A. somehow rise to the level of "The 500 Greatest". And some new entries, like Manu Chao's Proxima Estacion Esperanza, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linux, and the compilation The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto, just leave me (and I'm sure many others) scratching my head in bewilderment. In my mind, it helps if the music you're calling the 'greatest ever' has been heard by more than a couple of music critics  . . . especially if these albums replace deleted ones by The Beatles (With The Beatles, a shocking removal), Massive Attack (Mezzanine) and Roxy Music (Country Life), or rank higher than Gang Of Four's Entertainment! and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If it's not something that a reasonably informed and open-minded music lover is aware of, then it simply shouldn't be on the list.  Poorly done by RS, in my mind; there are plenty of other albums that are probably more deserving of honor . . .

The Poll:

. . . all of which leads back to my question: what omitted albums do you feel should have been on the updated list? I listed an number of albums for this poll, selected according to their renown, influence or representation of a specific genre of music. Here are the results:
10 (58%)   Combat Rock - The Clash
8 (47%)     Skylarking - XTC
8 (47%)     Boston - Boston
4 (23%)     The Specials - The Specials
4 (23%)     In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs
4 (23%)     Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes
4 (23%)     Broken English - Marianne Faithful
3 (17%)     My Life In The Bush of Ghosts - Brian Eno & David Byrne
3 (17%)     The La's - The La's
3 (17%)     Standing On A Beach/Staring At The Sea - The Cure
2 (11%)     Signals, Calls & Marches - Mission Of Burma
2 (11%)     United States Live - Laurie Anderson
2 (11%)     Swordfishtrombones - Tom Waits
2 (11%)     Technique - New Order
2 (11%)     Diesel & Dust - Midnight Oil
2 (11%)     The Stax Story (Vol. 1-4) - Various Artists
2 (11%)     Colossal Youth - Young Marble Giants
1 (5%)      The Trinity Session - Cowboy Junkies
1 (5%)      The Rise & Fall - Madness
1 (5%)      Atlantic Rhythm & Blues, Vol. 1-8 - Various Artists
1 (5%)      Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971 - Various Artists
1 (5%)      Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 - Billie Holiday
0 (0%)      Emperor Tomato Ketchup - Stereolab
0 (0%)      Computer World - Kraftwerk
0 (0%)      Only The Lonely - Frank Sinatra
0 (0%)      Heaven Or Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins
0 (0%)      Labour Of Love - UB40
0 (0%)      1979-1983 (Vol. 1 & 2) - Bauhaus
0 (0%)      Bustin' Out: The Best of Rick James - Rick James
0 (0%)      The Whole Story - Kate Bush
I completely concur with these poll results. Combat Rock, I've already said more than enough here about how great I think this album is. Boston is the second-best selling debut album of all time in the U.S. (just behind Guns 'N' Roses Appetite For Destruction), with over 17 million units sold. And Skylarking, whether accidentally or not, is one of the most perfect 'song cycle' albums ever made, and one of the few discs I can listen to from start to finish without skipping over songs - everything just fits. I would have liked to have seen more votes for Computer World, hugely influential in the worlds of electronica, early rap (listen to the beat in "Planet Rock" again sometime) and alternative music (I'm looking at you, Coldplay), and for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, another influential album that's also one of my personal all-time favorites.  But I guess you can't have everything.

Anyway, here's a link to the overall 2003 and 2012 RS500 lists that I put together, showing the differences between the two polls: album movements, deletions and additions. Thanks to everyone who participated.  I'll try to come up with another poll topic very soon.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Smiths - The World Won't Listen

Weekend before last, I made the trek back to Annapolis, MD for my Naval Academy class reunion. I hadn't been to Annapolis in many years; as I approached the city from the west on Rt. 50, I could almost feel the time slipping backwards, as I closed in on my past. Annapolis holds a lot of my personal history; not only did I attend the Academy, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, I also spent part of my childhood there, living in the military housing across from the Academy gates.

The rain was hammering down on the city, and water was literally running like rivers in the streets as I arrived early that Friday to check in at the hotel that served as alumni headquarters and pick up my credentials for the upcoming events of Homecoming weekend. It seemed like the torrential downpour would last all day, but by the time I checked in and said hello to a few old classmates, the deluge had ended, and to my amazement, the sun could be seen breaking through; it was actually going to turn out to be a nice day. Instead of heading towards the Academy Yard to participate in the morning meetings and events of that first day, I turned my steps in the opposite direction, towards the locales I knew when I was a kid. I spent the morning revisiting my old neighborhood and elementary school, gazing once more over playgrounds and swimming pools and the old homes of long-lost friends and playmates - places now altered in several different ways with the passing of years, but with many old landmarks still recognizable.

I eventually made my way back to the Academy grounds that afternoon, wandering around the brick walks and immaculately tended lawns and flower beds of the Yard for a while, taking in the sights of my alma mater. I visited the Academy Chapel, the first time I've set foot in that building in more than two decades, then walked across the street to the Herndon Monument, the successful assault of this 20-foot tall stone obelisk, covered with grease and topped with a combination cap, serving as the annual culmination and symbolic rite of passage out of plebe (freshman) year. I guess I didn't realize it as much when I was there, but the Naval Academy Yard (campus) is actually pretty beautiful, and fairly dripping with history and symbolism - like most things, I suppose you don't really think about such things until you've been away from them for a while.

I strolled down Stribling Walk, the central brick walkway, towards Bancroft Hall (the midshipman dormitory and my home for four years), and entered through the huge iron doors into the Rotunda area. When I went to school there, I was always a little bit in awe of this part of the building; it seemed even more awe-inspiring now, twenty-plus years on, with its imposing marble floors and walls, and murals depicting key events in American naval history.


The most hallowed part of the Rotunda was up a wide set of well-worn stone stairs directly opposite the entrance; these led to Memorial Hall, where the names of Academy Medal of Honor winners and graduates who died in the line of duty (almost 1,000) are enshrined, by graduating class, in stone tablets on the wall. I went up and made my way over to the plaque for the class ahead of mine, the Class of 1986, and for the first time in a long while stopped to say "Hi" to my old friend Greg, while once more reflecting on the past . . .


In the summer of 1981, I entered the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. Now I'm sure that the term "prep school" conjures up for some of you images of leafy campuses, ivy-covered halls full of tweedy professors, varsity sweaters and snobby guys with names like Chas and Biff playing squash or lacrosse. But this place was far removed from the likes of real prep schools like Choate or Phillips Andover.

The school, known as NAPS, has its origins at the tail end of the First World War. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy at the time, Josephus Daniels, established a program that would make up to 100 regular sailors from the fleet eligible to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In those days, all Naval Academy candidates had to take an entrance exam, and by all accounts the test was a bear, with only a small fraction of applicants passing and gaining entrance to the service academy. The first couple of groups of sailors to take the exam got their asses kicked by it, so NAPS was established in 1920 by the then-Undersecretary of the Navy to help prepare the sailors for this rigorous test. That official's name? Franklin D. Roosevelt.

NAPS was exclusively a training facility for enlisted men (one infamous attendee was former Marine and University of Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman) until the late '60s/early '70s, when they began admitting civilians as well. I was selected for NAPS, instead of going straight into the Naval Academy, because I was two weeks too young to enter Annapolis directly (I graduated from high school when I was sixteen).

So in late July, I travelled alone 3,000 miles across the country to attend this faraway school - a scrawny, geeky-looking kid at least a year younger than most of my classmates. I arrived that evening at my new home for the next year - Nimitz Hall, a drab-looking brick-and-concrete dormitory with six dreary-looking wings of industrial beige-painted cinder block and dull green-tiled halls, located on a windy point of land between Coddington Cove and Coasters Harbor Island. On the first full day there, the other attendees ("Napsters") and I (about 200 in all) were organized alphabetically by last name into companies and then into platoons, with each platoon occupying a wing.

The next few weeks were full of heavy indoctrination, with the aim of quickly acclimatizing a bunch of high school kids into the ways, wherefores and rigors of military life. The days were full of early morning wakeups, physical exertion, five-mile runs, instruction on military history and tradition, uniform inspections, room inspections; rules on how to make a bed, fold your socks, clean your rifle; address an officer; and marching - always marching and drilling, on the hot tarmac behind the building. As one of our early memory exercises, we were required to learn the names and hometowns of everyone in our platoon. I found that we were from all over the country and from various walks of life. Some members were former military, but most of us were just out of high school.

One platoon-mate who stood out was Greg. Greg was a short, stocky, powerfully-built black dude straight outta Brooklyn, NY (he graduated from the renowned Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where he was a star wrestler). At that point in my life, I'd never known anyone who was actually from New York (much less Brooklyn), and as such I always assumed (misguidedly) that anyone from there must be a gang member or some sort of badass. Greg WAS a badass, but in a different way. He carried himself with calm dignity and good humor, and while he wasn't an academic genius per se, he had an innate sense of intelligence that surpassed even the smartest students there.

He did something that first week in Newport that impressed the hell out of me and many others, officers and peers alike. On the morning of our third day there, we were marched over to the nearby indoor pool for a swim test, to see who the 'dolphins' and who the 'rocks' were. The test included a leap from a platform suspended 7 meters above the deep end of the pool. Now, I wasn't a strong swimmer, but I could swim - still, I was plenty nervous when I got up on that platform and saw how high it really was over the water. Greg, on the other hand, couldn't swim a stroke. But without a moment's hesitation or the slightest quaver of fear, that guy climbed up the ladder and jumped right in! They had to fish him out of the water, but still . . . I still consider that to be one of the bravest things I ever saw anyone do in my life, and from that point onward Greg earned my everlasting respect.

At NAPS, Greg was paired up with a roommate named Dave, a corn-fed straight-arrow out of B*mf*ck, Iowa, seemingly as naive and salt-of-the-earth as they come. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with two people more dissimilar than Greg and Dave . . . but they became inseparable friends there in school, and on weekends could always be found out in town together, chasing the Salve Regina College girls and making liberal use of Newport's many bars (Dave might have seemed like a Midwestern square, but he had a taste for the booze just as powerful as Greg's, if not moreso). Many of their escapades became part of the school lore of that time - bar fights, road trips and hookups with the local chicks. With all of that, both Greg and Dave still managed to get high marks academically, and both were selected for leadership positions within the NAPS Battalion.

Greg and Dave moved on to the Naval Academy; I followed the next year. Although I was a year behind my old NAPS classmates, I still saw a lot of them at school and out in town. At Annapolis, just as in Newport, Greg excelled, eventually reaching the position of regimental commander, one of the top three posts at Navy. He busted his ass there, and finished his years at the Academy with a class ranking high enough to allow him to choose whatever speciality he wanted to pursue. Greg had long had his sights set on becoming a jet pilot, so it was no surprise when he chose Navy Air. I saw him one last time on his final day at Annapolis, in the King Hall mess hall, just before he headed down to Pensacola to begin flight school. I congratulated him on his graduation, and we spent a few minutes reminiscing fondly over the past five years, the places we'd been and all the folks we'd known during that time, many of whom had long ago fallen by the wayside on that long journey. We had a laugh or two, then he had to go. We shook hands and wished one another luck, and that was that. He was off to Florida, while I remained to complete my senior year.

That last year at Navy, and the mid-80s in particular, was a transitional period for me, musically. All of the bands I'd grown up with and loved - Devo, The B-52's, The Clash, The Police,
The Specials, Talking Heads, Madness - had either collapsed, disbanded, or were reaching what appeared to be the ends of their creative peaks. I'd been such a hardcore New Wave fan for so long, that as that genre was winding to a close and/or evolving into the alternative music of the late Eighties, I was sort of set adrift. Instead of getting fully into some of the new music coming out of England and the U.S. underground, I spent a great part of that period following/chasing after the tattered remnants of the bands I used to love: General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (ex-English Beat); Andy Summers, Stuart Copeland and Sting (ex-Police); Stan Ridgway (ex-Wall Of Voodoo); Jane Wiedlin (ex-Go-Go's) - I bought all of the releases (of varying quality) by these artists during that period.

As such, I was late getting into The Smiths. I'm sort of ashamed to admit this - I like to think that I am usually ahead of the curve when it comes to musical trends and movements, but not in this case. I don't know why it took me so long to get into them; in hindsight, their music was right in my wheelhouse. But I guess I was still too locked in to the bands of my past to concentrate on the future of music that The Smiths represented. One of my biggest music regrets is that I didn't absorb The Smiths in real time, instead coming to them just as the band was on the brink of permanently falling apart.

As I recall, the song that piqued my interest in this band was "How Soon Is Now?", played on local alternative station WHFS one evening in the late fall of 1986. I started asking around among my musically-like-minded friends, and found that, to a man, they were all big Smiths fans. I borrowed their albums to begin my education, and by the spring of 1987 I was such a fan myself that when I found a cassette copy of the compilation The World Won't Listen in the import bins at Tower Records in DC, I quickly snapped it up. I enjoyed the album immensely, especially songs like "Panic" ("Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ!"), "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "Rubber Ring". But throughout the disc, there's an air of melancholy and resignation inherent in many of the songs - "Unloveable" and "Half A Person" are prime examples. For me, this atmosphere of sadness and depression made the album a lot more 'real' than a disc full of "good time music". But it kept me from fully absorbing the entire record for quite a while - you can only take so much melancholy in a sitting.

The end of my final year at Annapolis was fast approaching, with Final Exam Week in May almost at an end. Late one afternoon, I was walking back to Bancroft Hall from my Economics class final, using the corridor beneath Michelson and Chauvenet Halls hard by the Ingram Field track, when a classmate caught up with me to tell me the news of the death of a prior year graduate during a training flight down in Pensacola, Florida earlier that day. I asked him if he knew the grad's name, and when he said it was Greg, I stopped cold in my tracks. It felt like my entire body went . . . numb. I pressed the classmate for more information, but there wasn't much. It seemed that Greg and his instructor were in a jet trainer, practicing touch-and-goes (takeoffs and landings without stopping) at the flight school there, when something apparently went wrong during a landing approach and the plane plunged to the ground. The instuctor survived, but Greg was killed instantly.

It was jolting news, hard to believe.

I stumbled back to my room in a semi-daze, and sat at my desk in silence for what seemed like eons, thinking about everything, while at the same time thinking about nothing. For a good man, a friend, to die just like that, in the twinkling of an instant . . . it was just unfathomable. After a while the silence got to be interminable and oppressive, so I reached over and switched on the boombox at the corner of my desk, the one I purchased a couple of years early during my Youngster YP cruise. The World Won't Listen began playing in the cassette player - which seemed appropriate, given the circumstances. The music played on softly in the background, and I listened distractedly as I sat there thinking of my old friend . . .

I was suddenly roused from my contemplation and lethargy when I heard these words coming out of the speakers:
". . . Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know . . ."
The song was "Asleep", one of the quieter, more reflective songs on The World Won't Listen, a song I'd never paid much attention to before (truth be told: I usually just fast-forwarded past this song to get to "Half A Person"). The song consisted of Morrissey singing over a gentle piano ballad, with sound effects resembling wind blowing in the background. In the state of mind I was in at that point, the wind sound could be construed as the sound of someone flying through the air . . . like a pilot doing his flight training. I continued listening, and heard these lyrics near the end:
"There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Bye, Bye . . .
Bye, Bye . . ."
I'm not much for "messages from beyond the grave" . . . Still, in its own odd way, hearing those lyrics at that time, sounding like a farewell from the dead or dying, was somewhat comforting to me. I was sad that Greg was gone, but maybe he was in a better place . . . It didn't make everything OK, but still. I played The World Won't Listen and "Asleep" especially several times over those next few days, and in its own small way it helped me come to terms with what had transpired . . .

All of those thoughts and memories came flooding back, as I stood there that afternoon staring at my friend's name on the wall. Greg has been gone for more than twenty-five years now, asleep under green grass in a quiet corner of Long Island . . . forgotten by nearly all except for his family and his closest friends, who at gatherings still swap stories about his antics from long ago. He was one of the best of us, and would have gone far in the Navy, had he chosen to stay with it all these years. I could have easily seen him rising to flag rank (Rear Admiral and above) - he was that good, that well-respected, and that driven. I feel that it was a tragedy for the naval service, and possibly the nation, that his life was cut short at such a young age.

But mostly it was a tragedy for his loved ones and for those of us who knew him well. Dave, Greg's best friend, was devastated by his death. He spoke at Greg's funeral, and for a while there I heard that he was sort of drifting through his military career, burdened by grief and loss. But with the passing of time and the support of those close to him, Dave bounced back, and became a successful and high-ranking helicopter pilot. However, he never forgot his old friend and drinking buddy; a couple of years later, when Dave and his wife had their first child, a son, they named him Gregory.

Greg probably never knew how much I looked up to him - shoot, nobody talked about stuff like that, especially in their late teens and twenties; it would have seemed sort of weird. And besides, back then, it didn't need to be said - we were young, and were going to live forever, so there was plenty of time for that later. And now, it's far too late to tell him so. To me, he's not just a name on a plaque on a wall, but someone I knew and admired, and will always remember. And every time I listen to this album, and hear "Asleep", I think of him.



R.I.P., man.

Here's The Smiths' The World Won't Listen, released February 23rd, 1987 on Rough Trade Records. As always, let me know what you think.

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